The first thing you notice in Metro 2033 is the guitars. Every Russian subway dweller seems to have one, and they seem to delight in strumming them pensively around dystopic and moody campfires. But this isn't summer camp. There are no hearty renditions of kumbaya going on here.
If chilled dudes drinking vodka and plucking a tune brings back memories of musical bandits from S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, don’t be alarmed. Metro 2033 is made by 4A Games, a splinter team from GSC – the developers behind the ambitious Stalker series. It seems they have a thing for string instruments. They also have a thing for radiation and anomalies – but more on that later.
If ‘the team behind the Stalker series’ also happens to put you off a bit, again, don’t be alarmed. The critical consensus was that S.T.A.L.K.E.R was a great concept but a broken game. Thankfully the 4A Games have not gone back for a third bite at the cherry. They’ve taken all the good bits and started afresh. And from what I had the opportunity to see from the good folks at THQ – Metro 2033 is the game the S.T.A.L.K.E.R team were trying to make – and bets are on that they’ve finally got it right.
But first, some context. The narrative of Metro 2033 follows a pretty intense and fleshy story. The title is taken from the popular book by Dmitry Glukhovsky, and the game stays largely true to the novel. It's classical survival-horror-first-person-shooter fare – but with a Russian fatalistic twist. I love my horror with a bit of angsty philosophy thrown in. It’s so much more crushing that way.
The year is 2033 and forty years prior someone dropped something on Moscow. It could have been a nuke – it could have been a dirty bomb. All that has been revealed for sure is that whatever it was, it was big and it was destructive. Brutally destructive. Like, nothing left but concrete and ash, destructive.
The surface of the city has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the air is unbreathable. All the survivors legged it into the Subway systems where they found World War Two anti-air raid bunkers and set up shop. As a child you were one of those survivors, and you’ve pretty much been raised underground in the labyrinth of subway tunnels and caverns.
But quirky and irreverent Fallout 3 this is not. There are no sarcastic cartoons or V.A.T.S here. There are only mutant beasts looking for dinner (or as Paul Hoolihan, Metro 2033’s Asia/Pacific director, called them “monkey-pig-dog-man-things”) and radioactive anomalies that mess with the minds of subway dwellers. From what I saw, the anomalies are now more scripted, triggering cut scenes involving the ‘Dark Ones’ – humanoid forms whose intentions are not yet clear. Add to this the problem of each subway station fighting each other due to different ideological beliefs (I saw the Marxists griping about the Neo-Nazis) and you have a pretty layered storyline.
It’s obvious that 4A Games took the fatalistic pathos of the book to heart. But don’t let this turn you off the story – when you get your hands on this game, take the time to listen to the conversations and view the actions of the background NPC characters. Paul Hoolihan showed me a heart wrenching NPC conversation between a father and their child; she was asking when mummy was coming home. Mummy ain't coming home kid. Mummy’s never coming home; she got monster munched years before.
All of this makes the environment of Metro 2033 feel brutal, dirty, grimy and depressing. Life in the subways is quite obviously brutish. As Paul told me: “Everything in this game is against you”.
Even the graphics in this title stack the odds for the enemy. Based on the PATH engine (developed especially for the title) the maps and levels delight in the obtuse, the murky and the dark. The visuals are an exercise in lighting excellence, showcasing some pretty interesting particle effects. HDR and dynamic lighting make the game look as nihilistic as its narrative. Console gamers be warned (but PC gamers rejoice!) this title is definitely built for the PC. The title is DX11 compatible, and while the console versions are still great to look at, you’re going to need the grunt only a PC can offer to really get the most out of Metro 2033’s atmosphere.
And you really should push the graphics to the maximum, because they are important to the title’s gameplay. To call this a shooter isn't really correct. It’s an FPS-RPG hybrid with a heavy focus on stealth. That means that darkness is your friend. You can shoot out lights, blow out candles and interact with your environment in a multitude of ways. In keeping with the ‘lets make this game bloody difficult theme’ 4A Games has significantly trimmed down the HUD. In its place you character reaches into his pocket and displays a journal with objectives and information. His wrist watch gives vital info on your detection levels and when outside – the amount of life left in your gas mask. All with the help of the flame from a lighter made out of a .50 cal bullet. Which I thought was pretty cool.
When it comes to combat thankfully 4A Games has thrown advanced AI models into the too hard basket. In Metro 2033 thirty percent of the action is scripted and seventy percent is behavioural. This makes the combat fresh each time, but also challenging. In fact, it was too challenging – after beta testing 4A Games was forced to add an easy option because testers were finding it too difficult to complete the game. The new addition of one or two NPC team mates during various parts of the game eases the burden and the AI is scripted to follow your lead – which is handy.
While the combat I saw was not uniquely special (think S.T.A.L.K.E.R meets Resident Evil meets Thief) what was impressive was the weaponry on offer. No one has been outside for forty years, so improvisation and modification are the only way to get by. That means there's some cool stuff, from suped-up gas guns that fire ball bearings, to old World War II Sten guys that are held together with bits of wire. The rep from THQ NZ delighted in telling me about a pistol he’d found with a crossbow bolted to the top of it. You can find these weapons near corpses or you can buy them in the stations.
Uniquely, Metro 2033 doesn’t use money. In the subways your currency is military grade ammunition. Good bullets equal dosh in this dystopic world. That’s a pretty clear statement of the priorities of the survivors in Metro 2033. If you’re low on ammo in a fire fight you can load in your precious rounds – but be very careful, it’s like firing $100 bills.
Metro 2033 is shaping up to be an exciting and interesting story driven title. Books are often made into films, but it’s now becoming more common for the imaginary worlds of novels to be virtualised onto computer screens. This is a coming of age development for the industry and should be applauded. What was clear from my hands on experience was that Metro 2033 borrows heavily from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but it knows that. By referring to Metro 2033’s surface scavengers as ‘stalkers’, it is practically inviting comparison. But Metro is a new title in its own right and one that's looking like an intriguing experience. You should definitely keep an eye on Metro 2033. If for nothing else but those melodically morose guitars.